Thursday, February 15, 2018
Christian apologist John Dickson wrote an article some time ago with the purported object of promoting productive dialog between Christians and atheists. It contains ten pieces of advice for the atheist to follow that he feels will advance this objective. I applaud him for his effort, but I have to take issue with him on a number of points. I'll address them one by one. At the same time, I think there are a number of things that he (as well as other Christians who want to engage in robust debate with atheists or skeptics) might want to think about.
But before we even get into his ten tips, let me point out that he begins by making a rather dishonest assertion right in the very first sentence of the introduction to his piece. He claims that the "intellectual movement" of Christianity has a longer history that of atheism, and this appears to be his basis for claiming the high ground, from which Christians can be in a position to speak with an air of authority. But the fact is that atheism and skeptical thinking existed in Greece centuries before Christianity. And this brings up something that very often sets the tone for conversations between atheists and Christians. They have a tendency to assume they're correct, despite demonstrable evidence to the contrary. So I would suggest a tip for Christians: If you want to have a productive conversation with an atheist, a little humility would be helpful. Recognize that you aren't always right.
Tip #1. Dip into Christianity's intellectual tradition
Dickson advises atheists to have some awareness of the philosophical giants of Christian thought, form Origen, all the way up to Plantinga. OK. I can't really argue with that, but I think it depends on the topic of the discussion. If the issue at hand is the historicity of the Jesus, for example, then the arguments of Aquinas are of little relevance. And while we're talking about who sounds like the kid in the room, might I suggest that Christians learn a little science? Nothing degrades the conversation faster than someone who makes claims about how things work in our world that flatly disagree with what we know from science.
Tip #2. Notice how believers use the word "faith"
Dickson insists that for Christians, belief is based on "philosophical, historical, and experiential reasons", and that only after one accepts belief on a rational basis does he then place his reason-based faith in God. He goes on to castigate Richard Dawkins for his ignorance of this. This is the same old story that we have all heard many times. But there's a reason the dictionary definition of faith doesn't match what apologists say. The reality is the opposite. We can all observe where belief really comes from. Christians don't grow up listening to theological arguments and then making a reasoned choice to believe in God, no matter how much they want to believe it. I would urge apologists to be a little more honest, and admit that most of them believed in God long before they had any rational understanding of theological arguments.
Tip #3. Recognize the status of Six-Day Creationism
I would agree with Dickson on this, but once again I would caution him that people like Dawkins and Krauss don't accuse all Christians of having this belief. There certainly are many Christians who do, and those are the ones who have been the subject of commentary on this issue from these atheist authors. My advice to Dickson and other apologists who are so eager to point out the supposed ignorance of New Atheists is to pay more attention to what they say. They don't claim that this applies to every Christian. So there's no need to get all uppity about it, is there?
Tip #4. Repeat after me: few theologians embrace a God-of-the-gaps
Dickson bashes Lawrence Krauss again for making this claim. But in doing so, he reveals that he doesn't really understand the concept. Of course Christians don't embrace something they would call a god of the gaps. But it is nevertheless true that their god has been eliminated as the "best explanation" for innumerable phenomena that are now better explained by science. And as the march of science continues, the ever-shrinking areas where scientific knowledge has yet to provide a full accounting happen to be the very same areas for which a theistic explanation is still thought by Christians to be best explanation. Whether they think so or not, their God is relegated to the remaining gaps in scientific understanding. This is a reality that Dickson refuses to recognize. But he would be well advised to listen to Krauss, and make an effort to understand what he's talking about.
Tip #5. "Atheists just go one god more" is a joke, not an argument
Well, it was a rather tongue-in-cheek comment. But there is an argument behind it. And it isn't, as Dickson seems to think, an argument that atheism is an extension of monotheism. In other words, it doesn't say that monotheism is a step along the way between polytheism and atheism. It is about skepticism. It is saying that theists (not just Christians) are generally skeptical of other religions besides their own (regardless of how many gods they have), and atheists extend their skepticism to one additional religion. So we see again that Dickson doesn't really grasp what the real argument is. And in dismissing it as a joke, he is exposing himself to criticism for not engaging with the issue raised by atheists.
Tip #6. Claims that Christianity is social "poison" backfire
This is not an argument at all, and it isn't about Christianity in particular. But "How Religion Poisons Everything" is part of the title of a book by Christopher Hitchens. And, true, the title is hyperbolic, as many book titles are. I seriously doubt that Dickson ever read the book. It's about religious belief in general, and contains a number of arguments about various ill effects of religion. It's not about showing that atheists are better than Christians, as Dickson seems to think. His point is well taken that there are many good Christians, but he ought to read the book, or at least find out what it's about, before he makes criticisms like this.
Tip #7. Concede that Jesus lived, then argue about the details
Dickson says that this matter is "beyond reasonable doubt", and the "the vast majority of specialists in secular universities throughout the world" agree. I certainly believe that the vast majority of Christian scholars probably think there's no doubt about it. I agree that most secular scholars think there probably was a person in history upon which the stories are based, but for them, it is not a settled question. To say that there is no reasonable doubt about it is wrong. There is plenty of reasonable doubt. Instead of simply dismissing those doubts out of hand, Dickson should probably read Carrier's book On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, or some of the other scholarly material that raises serious questions about about whether the historical Jesus actually existed. He doesn't have to accept Carrier's arguments, but he should at least admit that it is not entirely unreasonable to doubt whether Jesus lived.
Tip #8. Persuasion involves three factors
The three factors are intellectual, psychological, and social or ethical. Dickson makes a good point here. And then he proves his own point, but not in the way he intended. Once again, he dismisses New Atheist authors as being unpersuasive, but I think it has much less to do with their arguments than his own psychological reaction to them. He obviously doesn't want to listen to them or try to understand what they say. But that's not so much their fault. In the interest of having a robust debate, Dickson should at least be willing to listen to them and understand the actual arguments they present, so that he can debate those issues, and not a straw man of his own making.
Tip #9. Ask us about Old Testament violence
Tip #10. Press us on hell and judgment
Here, Dickson is saying that these are areas of vulnerability in Christian beliefs that would make good fodder for debate. I suppose he's right about that, and I applaud him for recognizing some kind of weakness in his beliefs. But please forgive me if I sound a little dubious. Is he telling us that these are the main areas of weakness in Christianity? Does he suppose there's not much reason to debate other issues? We have already seen that he doesn't think there is any room for debate on the historicity of Jesus. I strongly suspect that he has the same opinion about much more than that. And that attitude is likely to have an effect on many discussions he has with atheists. Perhaps he should be more open to the idea that every aspect of Christianity is ripe for debate and discussion.